Though this stage will eventually comprise just one of seven, it still needs a concrete sense of progression and achievement for the player, providing a full gameplay experience. The total play time should be substantial but not excessive – likely around two hours on average to reach the end of the game (or the next stage once it’s implemented). Some strategies may cater more towards quicker progression, while others may be more leisurely.
At the beginning of the game, new players will be taken through an interactive tutorial, introducing them to basic gameplay functions while giving them a head start at evolving their microbe. The middle game has a greater focus on chemical warfare and unlocking organelles, while towards the late game cells start to coalesce into colonies with signal and bonding agents, paving the way for the early multicellular stage.
All players begin the game as the default starting cell, which has only a nucleus, the golgi apparatus, an endoplasmic reticulum, cytoplasm, a membrane and a couple of mitochondria. This is enough to allow simple processes like aerobic respiration. For players who have started games before (or have purposefully opted out of it) there is no tutorial. Metabolic, fluid and CPA simulations begin immediately and the game progresses dynamically from there.
Players who have set their experience level as novice are given a starting tutorial, along with text and action guidance throughout the game. The following few paragraphs describe the progression of the tutorial.
The tutorial serves to introduce the player to basic gameplay, and allow them an extra editor session before all other cells start evolving, effectively giving them a slight advantage to balance out their unfamiliarity.
On starting the game, the player is greeted with a text overlay welcoming them to the tidepool while the environment is paused. It explains the core concepts of the game (competing with other cells for evolutionary advantage) and gives a final chance to skip the tutorial (text guidance elsewhere will still be present though). If this option isn’t taken, when the overlay is closed, the game will still be paused and the player’s cell highlighted. Pictorial or animated representations of basic microbe movement (with controls) are shown next to the microbe. There is a ‘Continue’ option to click in the lower right of the screen, also mapped to the space bar, enter and escape.
Once ‘Continue’ is clicked, the game is unpaused. There are no other microbes, no fluid dynamics, and the player’s compound stores are fixed as the metabolic compound simulation has not yet started. Since water currents will not be exerting pressure on the player cell, it can move quickly without flagella or cilia, so the player can experiment with the movement controls freely. There is a glowing translucent green ring just outside the player’s initial vision, so that once they begin moving they can see it and move towards it.
On passing beyond the boundary, the next step of the tutorial begins. The game is paused again and another set of pictures depict how compounds can be gathered from compound clouds and processed in a cell’s organelles. This may be too complicated a concept to explain purely visually, so some text may be needed (especially when describing the function of specific organelles). When the player clicks ‘Continue’, the game is unpaused and they’ll see a compound cloud in a ring further out from the starting location. Since there is no fluid simulation, the cloud remains static until the player’s microbe travels through it.
At this point the metabolic simulation begins so the player can process the compounds. The compounds should be specifically chosen so that it’s nigh on impossible for the player to die at this early stage. For this section of the tutorial only, organelles will glow green when processing compounds, and the player can hover over each to see its associated input and output compounds. These tooltips can be accessed throughout the entire game if experience level is set to novice.
Once the player generates a certain amount of ATP, another overlay appears explaining how locked-up compounds are produced. When the overlay is closed, the player automatically receives enough locked-up compounds to reproduce, so the editor button activates and is highlighted.
When the player clicks the ‘Structure’ tab, they are given a quick visual guide to placing cytoplasm and organelles, possibly with animations (showing things like using left click and right click to add and remove cytoplasm hexes respectively). In this tutorial editor, every organelle is locked except for cytoplasm, mitochondria and predatory pili. Mutation Points are not yet displayed – instead, the player can only place a maximum of six cytoplasm hexes, one mitochondria, and two pili. The organelle icons are grayed out if the player is unable to place more. The player is instructed to attach at least one pili to their microbe through highlighted green arrows.
The ‘Appearance’ tab is unlocked and the player can freely change their microbe’s visuals without cost, as they are always able to do. The ‘Behavior’ tab allows the player to place as many blocks as they’d like, but only draw a maximum of two wires. All these editing limits are in place to ensure the player gets to grips with all game functions without creating a highly evolved microbe right away. As always, the player must save their new species before finishing, and the game provides visual help with this as well.
On returning to the environment, the nearby environment is replaced by randomly generated positioning of compound clouds, light and heat spots and some default AI microbes. There are still no fluid dynamics, but all other simulations now begin properly. The player is briefed on combat using predatory pili, and must kill another cell to complete the tutorial. Once they have done this, water currents appear and the game notifies the player that to move freely from now on they’ll need flagella, cilia or lamellipodia.
Whenever a new mechanic is introduced (agents, engulfing, bonding, etc.), the player is given text guidance and some visual cues (such as highlighted members of their own species if they’ve evolved bonding agents) but game mechanics remain the same from then on.
Early gameplay focuses on the struggle to survive. It’s at this point that the player is most vulnerable, with little agency to change things. They’re at the mercy of the currents until they place flagella or cilia, at the mercy of predatory cells which have them, and at the mercy of the first few other major evolutionary advances, like agents.
The player must play intelligently to have any hope of progressing. Since they can’t move particularly quickly and don’t have many weapons, their early strategy is likely to be keep out of the way. Most of their work at this stage will be done in the editor, as this is the only way they’ll be able to overcome the problems they face in the environment. Multiple flagella or cilia are needed to adequately fight against water currents, and since they’re expensive, the player will have to enter the editor multiple times before they have much command of the environment.
Soon the player may unlock more organelles, either by mutating existing organelles or assimilating free-living bacteria. This gives them access to progressively more special abilities, keeping interest levels high but not bombarding the player with new information to keep track of.
The middle game is where the player will spend the majority of their game time, and involves agent warfare and battling the evolution mechanics more than the environment.
By this point, both the player and NPC cells will be more complex with numerous abilities to keep track of. The player’s focus will be streamlined by their chosen strategy, as different gameplay styles begin to diverge during this stage.
One possible strategy is to become a photosynthesizer. Cells with chloroplasts and a cell wall will generally be much heavier and less maneuverable than their counterparts, but better defended against attackers (akin to large herbivores in the animal world). They can still use agents, and it’s advantageous for them to use defensive agents (like warnings to nearby friendly cells about predators, or bonding agents to form small colonies) as they won’t be able to take full advantage of a cell’s spilt compounds. Photosynthesizers make full use of organelle priorities, adaptively optimizing their metabolism in response to the environment. Gameplay as a photosynthesizer is generally slower-paced than other options, with long, relaxed generation times.
Another strategy pathway is to become a predator. Smaller predators may be covered in flagella, giving them quick movement, so they can dart in and attack or scavenge under the noses of larger predators. Predators will generally use offensive agent tactics – flagella impairing agents to slow prey down, or toxins injected via pili to break down prey from the inside. Sometimes they may become engaged in chases, even with members of their own species. They could be fighting alongside each other if it’s mutually beneficial (such as “pack hunting” to take down large autotrophs using signal agents to coordinate efforts) or even acting as cannibals.
Other cells might become large, engulfing predators. These would be vulnerable to slime or more agile prey, but can often rule entire ecosystems and take advantage of prey other predators may not be able to. Yet more cells might become small, agile autotrophs, with chloroplasts but no cell wall for defense. All these traits should arise dynamically through Auto-Evo, and the player will have manual control over their evolutionary decisions.
While the editor is still massively important at this stage, now the player has more to do in the environment, they can engage more in actual gameplay. They can now run away from predators or chase down prey, selectively releasing or avoiding agent clouds. The middle game is where most of the evolutionary arms race will take place, as each species develops a strategy to counter other strategies.
Towards the end of the game, some strategies may become less viable. Eventually, the player’s end goal is to survive long enough to evolve the required features to form a large colony. Other species cannot initiate the multicellular stage – it only begins once the player’s colony exceeds an arbitrary number of individuals which between them have an arbitrary amount of compounds. These values must be found through testing for balance.
Some survival strategies won’t allow colonies to form. Small predators, for instance, are far more effective at surviving alone than in bonded groups. However, these strategies are advantageous for most of the game so nearly guarantee survival if done properly, and the player can always evolve into a colony-building species towards the end of the game.
It will be a difficult balancing act to make colonies ineffective strategies until the very end of the game. Artificially delaying the arrival of bonding agents into the gene pool could work, or evolutionary bottlenecks could be set up where small colonies lead to decreased survival but beyond a certain limit their survival rate increases.
While the player’s eventual goal is to form a large colony, really their goal is to survive long enough for this to happen, whatever evolutionary strategy they choose. All should be viable, though some may have advantages compared to others so that players can choose a more challenging gameplay experience.
Once the end game conditions are met, the player is shown a victory message. They can continue playing if they choose, but gameplay is unlikely to be very engaging beyond this point. Replay value is added through changing the setup settings or exploring a different strategy.